Like many Mongolians, Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir has been visiting shamans from an early age, consulting the spirits for guidance when confronting thorny life challenges. So it came as no surprise when, several years back, the filmmaker’s mother urged her to visit a shaman during a particularly turbulent time in her life.
The surprise arrived when the ritual concluded and the shaman’s mask came off. Purev-Ochir realized he was hardly in his twenties—a tender age for someone tasked with performing such an important function in the community.
“I was fascinated that he had this role, and this responsibility,” said the director. “I was also having troubles myself in my twenties as a modern Mongolian, how to navigate between who I am and who I should be. I just couldn’t imagine what kind of crisis he would go through…and [became] fascinated with his dual identity.”
That encounter was the creative and emotional spark for “Ze,” Purev-Ochir’s feature-length directorial debut, which will take part in Locarno’s Open Doors co-production platform for films from Southeast Asia. The film tells the story of the budding relationship between a teenage shaman and a young woman, set in the impoverished yurt district of the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar.
“Ze” is produced by Mongolia’s Guru Media and co-produced by France’s Aurora Films. Purev-Ochir—whose latest short film, “Mountain Cat,” received a Cannes 2020 label—is currently finalizing the script with an eye toward shooting in the second half of 2021.
“Ze” is an exploration of the contradictions of modern-day Mongolia, a country where growing class divisions spurred on by what Purev-Ochir describes as “unfettered capitalism” are thrust against the traditions and beliefs of an older way of life. Caught between those contradictions is the emotionally charged relationship between 16-year-old Marla and the shaman, Ze, a bittersweet love made all the more complicated by the pressures of life on the rough-and-tumble fringes of Ulaanbaatar.
Through the film, Purev-Ochir also embarks on a personal journey, interrogating her own beliefs about shamanism and its place in the society around her. “I believe in it personally, but that doesn’t also mean that I believe in every single shaman that is appearing right now in Mongolia,” she said.
In the past two decades, the number of ersatz shamans in her country has increased dramatically, according to the director. “I see that more as a symptom of the lack of societal care for modern Mongolia. I don’t see it as a lot of fake shamans being born. It’s a symptom of a need and a necessity. It’s more telling of where we are as a society than anything.”
For Western audiences, “Ze” presents a stark, modern vision of a country whose name is perhaps more commonly associated with romantic images of vast, windswept steppes. The film is a portrait of the hard-scrabble realities of what it means to be a young, urban Mongolian today.
“I feel like what’s in [foreign audiences’] heads is this extremely exoticized version [of Mongolia],” said Purev-Ochir. “There are certain realities that I really want to come across in this film. People are really not aware of the type of living and the circumstances in Mongolia in the moment.
“Most importantly, I want the Mongolian audiences to see themselves truly,” she continued. “I’m just not sure that a raw, real depiction [in film] is happening right now in Mongolia. My true hope is that Mongolians actually see themselves on screen. And, of course, the rest of the world gets to know us a little bit better.”